mercyposterMercy, directed by German filmmaker Matthias Glasner, is a fascinating melodrama screening at the upcoming 2013 Audi Festival of German Films. Set in the beautiful northern Norwegian town of Hammerfest, covered by periodic complete darkness and light, Mercy is an engrossing slow-burn drama fraught with moral quandary (guilt is a more relevant virtue than the eponymous one, however) and domestic melodrama. Mercy offers surprises and focuses on how people cope with isolation, both in relation to location and the individual emotional traps they face. The plot mechanics are well constructed and the unique location presents a stunning snowy canvas for this tale to unravel.

Niels (Jurgen Vogel, Hotel Lux) and Maria (Brigit Minichmayr, Das Weiss Bande) and their son Markus (Henry Stange), have recently emigrated to Norway in the hopes they can start a new life and resurrect their stagnant marriage. Niels has taken on a job as an engineer and we soon learn he has been sleeping with an attractive colleague (Ane Dahl Top, Dead Snow). After being briefly distracted by the northern lights on her way home late one night, Maria hits someone or something with her car. She stops quickly but is panicked and drives on home. A search by Niels later in the night reveals no sign of anything, but Maria still fears the worst. The next day, on the news and in the paper, there is a report that one of Markus’ schoolmates had been killed during the night, a hit-and-run.

What should have rocked this already distant couple further apart, in fact, leads to them becoming closer than ever. This newfound attraction complicates Neils’ ongoing affair, drawing remorse, and when the couple become acquainted with the parents of the deceased schoolmate, Maria’s guilt continues to cripple her and she struggles to find the courage to come forward and confess.

The element of the film that doesn’t work as effectively as this central relationship is that of Markus, whose cold bond with his parents (whom he often spies on and films their tense exchanges with his iPhone) only worsens when he learns of their involvement in the hit-and-run. He seems to be neglected; his mother works night shift, his father, growing increasingly bitter with the endless darkness, has little patience for him, believing he is weak and Stange’s expressionless performance doesn’t help.

Finally, one of the strongest features of the film was its cinematography. Glasner encases the town in a surreal darkness/light, which is both beautiful and ominous.

Vogel is solid, Minichmayr is excellent and their performances lift this depressing but powerful study of familial dysfunction and internal conflict. Tangled up with peculiar natural elements and small-town tragedy, it is quite a concoction, but Glasner makes intelligent, artistic decisions that make Mercy resonate. 

[rating=3] and a half 

Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22